Britain’s decision to vote in favour of leaving the European Union has lifted a stone on a country which, underneath its comfortable, conservative surface, is wracked by division. The divide is not only over whether we should be in or out of EU institutionsbut, more deeply, about the society in which we thought we live, and the sort of society in which we’d like to.
The question was not about immigration. As Tribune said throughout the referendum campaign, nothing about the vote was going to change the free movement of people if we were to stay within the European single market, and there was nothing in the referendum question that suggested we did not wish to. And yet it was everything about immigration. The debate was hijacked by those who cynically used it to stir the anti-immigration fears and racist roots of that part of the electorate for whom ‘foreigners’ are the source of all our economic, health, housing, education and cultural problems. And those who simply cannot abide muslim dress codes.
A more serious debate on the merits and demerits of staying in the EU was never fully developed. There was, for example, a perfectly defensible argument for voting Out on the basis that, given a choice, one would not wish to sign up again to an institution which is anti-democratic, dysfunctional, perforated by corrupt practices and has in its foundations the promotion of economic austerity. There is a chasm between this side of the debate and that promoted by the Leave campaign, which chose to ride a tsunami of lies about immigration, not least the millions
of Turks allegedly massing to storm the British borders. Protesters against Brexit would do well to differentiate and not lump all Brexiters in the same odious camp.
The lifting of the stone has shone a light on a fractured political system and a fractured society. The political elite has been found dallying with the truth and unable to deal with the consequences of its own incompetent failures. Society has been found to be more deeply riddled with racism than most of the liberal class would like to believe. Neither of these were caused by Brexit. This was the state of the nation before the vote. Racist attacks and abuse may have increased but there were no more racists on 24 June than there were on the 22nd, though they may certainly have been emboldened by what happened on the 23rd.
Amid the post-referendum hysteria some good has come. Pensions, mortgages, housing prices and mortgages have all gone in the right direction, unless you are a speculator, a small-scale saver or a European holidaymaker (you still will be); the austerity Budget and the worker-punishing TTIP deal are out the window, at least for Britain in the latter case. Exports face better prospects in the few sectors where we have anything left to export, though imports are more expensive.
Unfortunately the Parliamentary Labour Party has succumbed to a most toxic strain of this hysteria. Plotters and mutineers who were always going to use the vote to launch an attack on Jeremy Corbyn successfully pushed their opposition to a tipping point where more sensible MPs were sucked into a vortex which has produced a stand-off between the party members and themselves. Speculation about a historic split, the possibility of two separate parties emerging, the end of the Labour Party no less, has been rife. The ostensible reason, that the referendum result shows that Corbyn is an electoral liability, is risible, as his record since his election as leader shows.
What form of collective insanity gives rise to the belief that Angela Eagle MP, for all her political attributes, is a unifier who will ride to the party’s rescue at the next election? Or any other of those who stood for the leadership last year.
This is another, sad, part of the national profile: a political Opposition which has lost sight of its purpose and in its decrepitude turns on itself. A new politics is desperately needed.